Film Review: Gifted

An exceedingly warm and wonderful family drama from filmmaker Marc Webb.
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With theatres constantly inundated by expensive sequels and remakes based on existing material, it’s nice when a fresh and original idea shows up as the basis for a compelling film. Gifted is a rare breed in that sense, a simple story about an extraordinary young girl trying to lead a normal life that keeps you thoroughly invested with the quality of its storytelling.

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives in a Florida trailer park with seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) and a one-eyed cat named Fred. After years of home-schooling Mary, he feels it’s time for her to attend a real school and be around other kids. On Mary’s first day, her math teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) realizes the girl has math skills well beyond most kids her age, and most adults as well.

In fact, Mary isn’t Frank’s daughter but rather his niece, the daughter of Frank’s sister, a brilliant mathematician who killed herself shortly after having a baby that she trusted to her brother to watch over. Once word gets out about Mary’s brilliant math skills, her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) shows up and wants to take Mary with her to continue her daughter’s work in mathematics, but knowing his sister’s fate, Frank fights for the right to keep Mary in what might not seem like an ideal circumstance.

When a filmmaker like Marc Webb makes such a spectacular debut as he did with (500) Days of Summer in 2009, it’s sometimes disappointing when they go for the bigger Hollywood paycheck of a superhero franchise like The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. Thankfully, Webb is back to making smaller but equally powerful character-driven films like this one.

Rest assured that Gifted only uses complex math equations as a way into a family custody case that hopes to show how the best parenting can come from the unlikeliest of places. The results are a movie that starts off a little like the recent Hidden Figures, shifts into Kramer vs. Kramer territory, while still creating something that feels unique.

The casting of Chris Evans in the role of Frank is an interesting choice, not only because we’ve never seen him play a parental role, but also because he has the type of charm and personality that we can believe he’d pick up Jenny Slate’s schoolteacher at a bar, but only when knowing his young ward Mary is being cared for by the neighbor. Wisely, Webb cast Hidden Figures’ Oscar-nominated star Octavia Spencer as that neighbor, a small role in which she brings all her enjoyable warmth.

More than anything else, Gifted will be remembered for introducing many to the amazing talent that is ten-year-old Mckenna Grace, an acting prodigy who seemingly has worked more in the last three years than most of the co-stars from whom she steals scenes. She brings so much to the role, selling the relationship between Mary and Evans’ Frank through their many wonderful moments together. It’s this heartwarming bond that keeps you interested in their story.

Much of the film’s second act takes place in the courtroom with Frank and Evelyn fighting for custody of Mary, though it never lets this frequently overused story motif take away from the warm storytelling. In fact, some of the most amazing emotional fireworks of the film are on display here, particularly from Duncan, who is absolutely glorious once she takes the stand.

Webb does wonders with Tom Flynn’s original screenplay, getting the most out of every scene without resorting to flashy camera trickery or anything that distracts from this fine group of actors embellishing the rock-solid material.

Gifted deals with the question of nature vs. nurture in a way that’s refreshing, because it never feels patronizing, nor does it lose sense of the characters or their very specific situation. Would Mary have developed quicker and more fully under the roof of her academic-minded grandmother, or did having Frank’s unusual type of caring help turn the girl into a better human being, more capable of dealing with people and the world around her?

We’ll probably never know, because the movie ends at just the right moment to leave you wondering about some of the decisions being made outside Mary’s control and where they might lead.

Gifted is a fine example of how basic human relationships can be made entertaining, even for audiences who might not think the characters or subject matter would be of interest otherwise. Sadly, this kind of movie is harder to sell to moviegoers looking for bigger bells and whistles (or pre-existing known properties), but take our word that Gifted is a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser of a film.

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